South Sudan President Salva Kiir with Susan Rice, the United States Ambassador to the United Nations. The state of Sudan was partitioned after the South held a referendum on its future in January 2011., a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
Africa: Separation Anxiety
BY ELEANOR WHITEHEAD, 1 DECEMBER 2013
Southern Sudanese swapped the battlefield for the ballot box two-and-a-half years ago, when they voted overwhelmingly to sever their ties with Sudan. On July 9th 2011, jubilant street parties in the capital city of Juba marked the creation of the world's newest sovereign state.
But beyond South Sudan's freshly drawn borders, some members of the international community were worried. The secession, they said, could spur on the dozens of other separatist movements in Africa. They feared that it set a precedent that would threaten the integrity of territorial borders across the continent.
Post-colonial Africa has a long history of separatist movements: a predicament that dates back to 19th-century Europe. When colonial leaders met in Berlin in 1884 to parcel out the "dark continent" among themselves, they did so with scant consideration for divisions of language, religion or ethnicity that already existed here.
Then when independence came to most African countries in the 1960s, the continent's new leaders agreed to stick to these borders. Maintaining the status quo would have been in their interest for many reasons but mostly because it provided a way to prevent potentially damaging conflicts from erupting among themselves.
Since then, Africa's borders have remained largely unchanged. Aside from Namibia and South Sudan, the only other country in Africa that has won legal autonomy since colonial independence is Eritrea, which after a long and bloody war seceded from Ethiopia in 1993.
During the same period, in other parts of the world, many apparently immutable boundaries have been challenged and changed. Since 1990 especially, more than 30 new countries have been created around the world, as the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Balkan conflict led to the formation of new states that reflect ethnic, linguistic and nationalist divisions. Yet the map of Africa remains one drawn up by foreigners, ignorant of extant ethnic and religious realities.
As democracy becomes more widespread in Africa and a new mood of self-determination swells, the insistence on sticking to colonial borders is facing growing popular challenge. Across the continent, dozens of governments are struggling against rebel groups demanding either greater autonomy or full independence.
"The old understanding of 'Do not change the colonial boundaries' is over, in terms of people trying to find ways to govern their countries," says Annette Weber, head of Middle East and Africa research at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). "And some of the countries, in their current boundaries, just don't make sense." She points as one example to Nigeria, a nation that is divided between religiously distinct Muslim and Christian populations along a clear north-south fault line.
Continued dissatisfaction with government leadership exacerbates the problem, she says. "What we have seen in Africa is a lot of centralised states where the leader is running the capital but not really reaching out to the periphery. The state is so distant that it doesn't feature in the life of those populations." These marginalised people, she explains, often feel that they would be better off with "one identity-based territory that binds them. Independence becomes a hope or an expectation for them."
The Guardian newspaper in 2012 drew up a map of separatist factions in Africa showing their various aims and claims. The map was strewn with movements, which span the continent from the Casamance region in southern Senegal to the Uamsho Islamists (the Association for Islamic Mobilisation and Propagation) fighting for independence on the already semi-autonomous Tanzanian island of Zanzibar.
The deteriorating political situation in Zanzibar is of growing concern to the Tanzanian government for several reasons. Since 2012, the tactics employed by Uamsho have become increasingly violent, causing fatal clashes with local police and simultaneously jeopardising Tanzania's reputation for political stability. This is portentous economically since the Indian Ocean island relies heavily on revenue from tourists, who flock to its pristine beaches.
Kenya's coastal region, similarly reliant on tourists for revenue streams, has also been the target of attacks allegedly committed by a separatist group--the Mombasa Republican Council, which demands independence from the country's mainland.
The case of the Bakassi peninsula in the Atlantic Gulf of Guinea illustrates the power colonial boundaries still hold. Nigeria had been administering the tiny oil-rich province since independence in 1960. In 2002, the UN's International Court of Justice ruled that, according to the ageing European colonial maps supplied by both nations in their bid for ownership of the territory, Bakassi should belong to Cameroon. Four years later Nigeria formally handed over the disputed peninsula to neighbouring Cameroon.
The government in Nigeria's capital, Abuja, said that by following the ruling it was respecting international law, but many people in the Bakassi region were outraged, making it clear that they considered Nigeria their home. Last year, a decade after the ruling, a declaration of independence (made from a radio-station tower on a tiny island off the peninsula's coast) by the Bakassi Movement for Self-Determination, drew brutal reprisals from the Cameroonian military.
These conflicts are by no means restricted to sub-Saharan states.
Algeria, for example, faces similar issues. Berber tribes in the northern region of Kabylie have long agitated for greater autonomy from the mainland. This is an underdeveloped territory, where water and power supplies are dire, dissatisfaction is high, and insecurity rife. In January 2013, two security guards were killed in an al-Qaeda-linked attack on a gas pipeline 120km southwest of Algiers.
Many of the ethnic Kabylie have boycotted Algerian politics in recent years and advocate for greater autonomy under a system that would recognise their identity and allow them greater control over oil and gas revenues, while remaining part of Algeria.
The list of these conflicts goes on and on: from Sudan to Western Sahara, from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Mali. Unsurprisingly, this is not a situation that African governments are taking lightly. In Zambia, for example, more than 70 separatists demanding independence for Barotseland state in the impoverished Western Province were recently arrested and are currently on trial for treason.
When Zambia's vice-president, Guy Scott, spoke to Africa in Fact about the arrests and trial, he echoed the sentiments of officials across the continent. "When the Tamil Tigers first started in Sri Lanka, we all thought they were just a bunch of second-rate intellectuals, and look how much damage resulted," he says, referring to the independence movement that took Sri Lanka into a civil war in the early 1980s. "I think it is dangerous to underestimate these things. We've been taking it quite seriously."
While the dissatisfaction stems from lack of economic opportunity among populations seeking greater control over their natural resources, the government's patience is limited.
"You can have sympathy, but I don't think it's helpful at this point," he says. "They set up the Barotseland Liberation Army, for example, and that's not helpful, even if it is only five guys with a penknife between them. There is certainly no majority of people who want to separate from Zambia. The rebels are young men mostly and what they want is a job and money and education and food."
In a bid to quell the movement, Zambia's ruling Patriotic Front party announced a revenue-sharing plan in 2012 that will use copper incomes to try to foster development and reduce poverty in the region. But, where necessary, the police will continue to make arrests. "I think the crackdown continues," Mr Scott says, "and it will until there are no issues to be attended to."
Whether any of these movements, even if successful, is likely win legal independence is another question altogether. The experience of Somaliland, a tiny breakaway state in the Horn of Africa, shows that neither local governments nor the AU are keen to see the continent further divided. "The AU is overwhelmed by fear that all the other small separatist entities might try to become independent," argues Ms Weber.
"They are worried [that recognising Somaliland] could set off a wave where we would not see an end or a viable solution, so they are quite cautious in taking the next step after South Sudan. I don't see the reality of the separation going through in the near future," she says.
This is a warning that could apply to any other independence movement across the continent.
And even if Somaliland wins legal recognition, the experiences of Eritrea and South Sudan are proof enough that secession does not necessarily equal political or economic success.
Since its independence, Eritrea has disputed its borders, fought another war with Ethiopia and clashed with troops from Djibouti. Its tiny economy is growing at a fair pace. But the UN and NGOs accuse the single-party state of brutal repression, including extra-judicial killings and political detentions.
In its two-and-a-half years of independence, South Sudan has bickered with Sudan over its rights to oil-export infrastructure, crippled its economy by closing crude production, and warred over disputed borders in the oil-rich Abyei region. Neither looks much like a developmental success story.
The experience of these governments, born of failed leadership in mother states, provides a valuable lesson. "What is often overlooked is where these states come from," Ms Weber explains. "Where did South Sudan's new government learn the business of statehood? They learned it from Khartoum. And many systemic problems of neglect and exclusion that we see from the government of Khartoum are now replicated in South Sudan.
"Often separation results in a duplication of another failed elite, without [an] understanding of what it is to be a government and to be responsible and to represent the interests of the population. That's not a viable option," she adds.
In Ethiopia, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), an independence movement established in 1973, appears to have come to terms with those constraints. In 2012, it surprised observers by dropping its long-held demands for secession, with spokesmen saying they would now work within the political system "to struggle for freedom in consort with all democratic forces".
Thus fears of a domino effect emanating from South Sudan's messy transition were probably overblown. But the persistence of independence groups reflects a bigger and more concerning trend: the failure of leaders to deliver change. "I think there will be more separatist groups calling for separation because they believe it could solve their problem of neglect, but not necessarily because South Sudan set a precedent," Ms Weber argues.
If governments on the continent fail to address the root causes of discontent--by providing more and better services, and helping to pull people out of poverty--they can expect separatist movements to stir up unrest for years to come.